Book Review: Young Fu of the Upper Yangtze by Elizabeth Foreman Lewis
I can hardly think of a culture more different from modern America than that of 1920s central China which Elizabeth Lewis presents in Young Fu. And yet, for all the differences, Young Fu is a teenage boy who faces hardship, peer pressure, and the result of his foolish decisions. He is also ambitious, works hard, and humbly accepts correction to please his superiors.
In this other, very foreign culture, Young Fu moves with his mother from the violent and war torn countryside to the city of Chungking. There in the city, many people live in squalor, eating (with little variation) a penny's worth of rice a day. There, a "Beggar's Guild" and "Thieve's Guild" demand money from the tradespeople in exchange for a promise that they would not be molested. There, coup after military coup ravages the city as soldiers steal food and supplies from the people, and murder the citizens at a whim. And there, Young Fu plans to make his fortune.
All of these aspects of the city and Young Fu's life are incomprehensible to the modern American reader...except for the last. Children in every culture dream of their futures and desire to make a name for themselves. Anyone could appreciate Young Fu's ingenuity and hard work. And even if they don't share it, they would recognize that Young Fu's passion for learning was significant in his success.
Of course, as the American welfare society has developed, there is less need for ambition to work hard and "rise above" a current situation. After all, why work when you can live fairly comfortably on someone else's dime? Young Fu did not have this option. But in the book, we see the rise of Communist sentiment, and Young Fu experiences firsthand the damage it can do to society and businesses. But Young Fu had no sympathy with these new and radical ideas. His ambition and hard work was unique even in his day. His character, while not exactly a "hero" figure, is not just someone to relate to, he is a figure to inspire the reader to a better and more fruitful life.
One thing that inspired me was Young Fu's amazing humility. Make no mistake, he had plenty of pride and thought quite well of himself and his abilities. But there are several occasions when he makes foolish decisions, with serious consequences that affected not only himself but also his mother and his kind employer, Tang Coppersmith. In these circumstances, he faced a dilemma: should he cover up his mistake and try to fix it on his own; or should he confess it and lose the respect the he had worked so hard to earn? Each time, Young Fu decides that the safer option was to speak the truth, apologize, and work hard to make it up. This humility earned him extra work but he also gained much respect and the friendship of his elders.
This would have been an excellent book for me to read as a child, and I will certainly make sure that all of our children read it! It's a quick and exciting read, with good themes of honesty, hard work, and respect for others. And what's more, it's a culturally accurate historical novel that provides a little glimpse into Chinese life in the 1920s. It's never a bad thing for children to realize that the world is full of people who live very different lives...but who are also very alike in the most essential ways.